A Catholic Monthly Magazine

A Seismic Shift in Caring

When a 7.1 earthquake hit Christchurch (pop 350,000) in the South Island of NZ before dawn on Sept 4, 2010, it was a near miracle that no one was killed. The quake’s epicentre was about 40 km from the city; hundreds of buildings were damaged, notably St Paul’s RC Church which split in half laterally; but no high-rise apartment buildings collapsed with sleeping occupants. Great damage was done underground as the sandy soil beneath parts of the city liquefied and poured forth into the streets and around properties.

Aftershocks kept people on edge for six months but they were tailing off when on 22 February another large quake (6.3) hit, this time shallow and much closer to the city centre so, although the magnitude was less, the ground motion in the city was very violent. It was 12.51pm with a lunch-time crowd in town. The CBD was shattered; buildings collapsed on parked cars and buses. Both Cathedrals, and many other churches, were badly damaged and lost spires, and two relatively modern office buildings collapsed killing most of the occupants. The death toll stands at 166 though may rise when all missing persons are identified. Liquefaction was much more widespread, and damage to roads and infrastructure huge. Water, electricity, and sewage networks were widely knocked out.

Before the dust even settled, people who had escaped injury set to work with astonishing energy and bravery to help those hurt.
Stories of personal heroism emerged. Cameras caught a person trapped under a heavy concrete beam and in strode a Polynesian man who effortlessly lifted it away. Civil defence emergency teams swung into action, and a state of national emergency was declared. The mayor of the town had been a minor media celebrity, and his media training showed as he informed and encouraged, praised and kept suggesting people help their neighbours. The rolling media coverage 24/7 for the next week was unprecedented. The last major urban quake in NZ was in Napier in 1931.

Money started pouring in from all over the country led by the government. Prime minister John Key has been on the ground in the city every week since the quake, striking the right notes of grief and practical concern. Thousands of meals were supplied on the streets. Quake experts flew in from Japan, England and USA, and volunteer police from Australia joined their NZ counterparts in going door to door across the city. People couldn’t speak highly enough of the Australians, a miracle in itself! A student army materialised armed with shovels and moved through the suburbs cleaning up the silt and fine sand which covered streets, lawns and in some cases living rooms.10,000 houses have been marked for demolition, thousands of others must have work done before being reoccupied. 70,000 people have left the city, and schools all round NZ are taking on students whose schools are unsafe.
I was born and bred in Christchurch, and am grieving for the people who died in this tragedy, and that this elegant Southern city is so afflicted. But I am hugely cheered by the coordinated, generous and expert response of rescue workers to the distress of the citizens. My great-grandfather Thomas O’Connell, stone mason, was one of the builders of the Catholic Cathedral where I celebrated my first Mass.

Bishops Jones and Matthew

Bishops Barry Jones and Victoria Matthews in St Christopher’s Anglican Church, Burnside, Ch-Ch -Photo: Angela Pyke

On Ash Wednesday the two Bishops of Christchurch, Bishop Victoria Matthews and Bishop Barry Jones, both bereft of Cathedrals, joined in prayer over the ritual Ashes. Bishop Jones prayed:
“This year the season of Lent will be observed in the ruins of a beautiful and gracious city, named as we know with a holy Christian name... We must pray that the city’s leaders will be wise, compassionate and fair; that the good will, large-heartedness and good patience of people will be long lasting and strong; that the people of the Church will always bear witness to the generous love and mercy of God.”

The quake which hit Japan on March 11 was 8000 times stronger than the Christchurch quake and the toll from the resulting tsunami will be many thousands. It seems that the rescue response will be just as generous and prompt.

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